George James Guthrie went down in history as one of Britain’s greatest army surgeons.
He performed dozens of lifesaving battlefield amputations during the Napoleonic Wars and was credited with revolutionizing military surgery. But Guthrie nearly wound up a double amputee.
During the 1808 battle of Vimeria, Spain, French musket balls smashed into both of his legs. Even so, “he continued to care for the wounded and he was able to take most of them with him when the Regiment [sic] returned to Cadiz,” J.C. Watts wrote in the September 1961 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine.
Guthrie survived with his limbs intact, and he remained an army surgeon until 1814. When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, Guthrie tried to return to active duty. But he and the army could not agree on his rank and conditions of service.
So Guthrie paid his own way to Belgium and joined the Duke of Wellington’s army medical staff at the battle of Waterloo, according to Watts’ article, titled “George James Guthrie, Peninsula Surgeon.”
Though he was a hero of the Peninsular Campaign against Napoleon, the army brass considered Guthrie a civilian volunteer at Waterloo and refused to reimburse him. As a result, Guthrie was out £40, Watts wrote.
In 1826, perhaps as consolation, the Duke of York offered Guthrie a knighthood. Maybe because he was still miffed about the 40 quid price, Guthrie turned down the honor “on the grounds that he was too poor,” according to Watts.
From patient to surgeon
Born in London to Scottish parents in 1785, Guthrie “received a liberal education” and learned to speak French, “which … was to stand him in good stead later on,” Watts wrote. During Guthrie’s youth, he was severely injured and treated by an army surgeon known as “Mr. Rush.”
Watts speculated this experience may have led Guthrie to pursue military surgery as a career. At 13 years old, Watts began studying medicine under a “Mr. Phillips,” a surgeon, and a “Dr. Hooper,” a physician. “That he made his mark on his teachers is clear from Hooper’s saying during his last fatal illness, ‘Mind, George, if I am to be cut, you must do it,’” Watts wrote.
Guthrie’s 14-year army career began in 1800, when he was named surgeon’s mate at London’s York Hospital. He gained valuable experience treating soldiers wounded in battle against French and Dutch forces in Holland.
Guthrie was apparently a prodigy. In 1800, at 15 years old, he was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons. The teen was also appointed regimental assistant surgeon to the 29th Foot, later known as the Worcester Regiment, according to Watts.
The commander was Lord Byng, a 23-year-old lieutenant colonel. “Notwithstanding the youth of both, it was always admitted that there was no regiment better commanded or doctored,” Watts quoted from an article in The Times of London.
On the battlefield
Seven years after Guthrie joined his regiment, the Spanish rebelled against Napoleon, who had made his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, king of Spain. In 1808, the British responded by sending soldiers under General Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, to support the revolt. His troops included the 29th Foot.
The bitter fighting pitted Spanish rebels and British and Portuguese armies against French troops and Spanish forces loyal to Napoleon and his royal sibling. The conflict, characterized by extensive guerrilla warfare, ended in defeat for the Bonaparte brothers in in 1814 and went down in history as the Peninsular War.
While Guthrie recovered from his leg wounds, he learned Portuguese, which came in handy when he got separated from the 27th Foot in a battle. He fell in with a Portuguese regiment. Though the regiment’s commander was British, some other British troops mistook their friends for foes and prepared to open fire.
“Guthrie realizing what was happening, stripped off his greatcoat exposing his red tunic, and thus prevented what might have been a very unfortunate incident,” Watts wrote.
Later that day, the surgeon happened to spot a French cannon crew dragging their gun away with mules. Guthrie, who was mounted, charged the enemy, who abandoned the gun and fled. The surgeon promptly brought in the cannon as a war trophy, according to Watts.
A leadership role
Guthrie was outspoken, notably for such a young surgeon. In 1809, he became so disgusted with other surgeons at a makeshift hospital that he “stepped in to prevent a large number of amputations, stigmatizing the place as ‘a slaughterhouse of the wounded,’ an action which saved many of the wounded, but did not endear him to the [Medical] Department,” Watts wrote.
In 1810, Guthrie came down with malaria and typhoid fever. Doctors diagnosed the ailments as fatal and left him to die. But he pulled through by guzzling two gallons of lemonade daily, according to Watts.
Sent back to Britain to recuperate, he soon returned to the fighting, sometimes operating for 18 hours a day. Once more, he ruffled his superior’s feathers, this time for complaining about conditions at the larger base hospitals, the author wrote.
He did more than gripe; Guthrie started sending patients to his regimental hospitals. “This again landed him in trouble with the Adjutant General, but he was able to show that the mortality, especially that following amputation, was very much lower in his regimental hospitals than in the general hospitals,” Watts wrote.
The irascible Guthrie managed to keep his post as the British drove the French out of Spain in 1814. Soon afterwards, Britain and its allies, notably Prussia and Russia, conquered France and forced Napoleon into exile on the island of Elba in the Mediterranean Sea.
Afterwards, the British quickly pared down its army, and Guthrie was taken off active duty and reduced to half-pay.
Yet the arrival of peace gave Guthrie time to write On Gunshot Wounds of the Extremities Requiring Amputation, which was published in 1815. The book was “a curious compound of intense practical skill and heroic surgery allied with diligent and compassionate care for his cases, but bedeviled by the galenic theories of medicine which still survived about inflammation, humours and the calorific [sic],” Watts explained.
The author added, “It was in advocating early surgery and especially early amputation of dead or disorganized limbs and those with combined vascular, nerve and bone injury, that Guthrie so advanced the practice of surgery.”
In addition, “he placed the normal amputations on a sound anatomical footing, deriding ligature of the artery at a distance from the site of the operation and giving the operative details clearly and fully,” according to Watts. But Watts said Guthrie’s “great success was in showing that amputation through the hip-joint and amputation of the shoulder-joint were safe and practicable procedures.”
The pioneer surgeon ultimately fully retired and died on his 71st birthday in 1856.
- Watts, JC. Proc R Soc Med. 1961 Sep; 54(9): 764–768. Available at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1870548/. Accessed Nov. 18, 2015.